Alexander the Great

Benny and Friends by Chris Hall

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

For years I've held a secret fascination with dictators, perhaps ever since I first read Muammar Gaddafi's book of essays and short stories, Escape to Hell in 1998.  As someone who has always struggled to get by, struggled to be accepted, struggled with notions of autonomy, as someone who has always played the underdog, who has always been a big dreamer, but who has repeatedly had their dreams dashed and put down, learning about these dictators – many of whom have also come from a similar, humble background – has been something of escape for me.  Yet historically, most dictators have had a repulsive ideology and some have been outright criminals and monsters.  I also readily admit that even the very idea of a dictatorship government, even a benevolent one, such as Plato's idea of a Philosopher King, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  But still this fascination persists.  That someone can project their will over their environment with such ease, that the world can bend and have historical consequences based on their own volition, that kind of superhuman and god-like power is incredible to me.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if I had that kind of power, how I would use it for good instead of evil.  But then I realize that the world and the environment with which I would have my sway, is comprised of human beings, human beings who may have contrary and dissenting opinions.  I have no desire to make other people suffer, but for once it might be fun to not be one who is suffering instead.  Adolf Hitler was an artist, not a very good one, but an artist nonetheless.  Napoleon Bonaparte was a writer of fiction, not a very good one, but a writer, still.  Both came from humble origins – Hitler was even homeless in Vienna for a time.  Perhaps if we treated our creative types with more dignity and respect, they wouldn't turn out to be such dicks.  

Lately I've been sketching various dictators in my pocket notebook, in ink and marker, with the idea being that once I get a studio going, I may commit some of them to canvas.  In this way I continue my long tradition of exposing my darker side, taking a risk and telling my secrets, as it were.  I am no apologist for dictators and their deeds, but I do admit that this fascination exists for me.  It is a taboo subject for some, but still a subject worth investigating.  Sir John Dalberg-Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  How could that not be a good story, in the tragic vein.  Napoleon, as a liberal revolutionary, was a hero, but slowly became corrupted to the point of becoming a paranoid, blood thirsty tyrant.  And as for comedy, who could not get a good laugh out such eccentricities as Muammar Gaddafi keeping an army of Amazon body guards trained in Kung Fu, or Hitler's habit of whistling the Disney tune, "When You Wish Upon a Star," or the ubiquitousness of all those ridiculous military uniforms covered with vanity medals.  This is rich territory to explore.  I hope people will have an open mind should I present a series of these works in a show, which, if it happens, I would like to call “Benny and Friends,” after Benito Mussolini.  Of them all, I think Mussolini is perhaps the most comical of the bunch, a bumbling over-reacher prone to exaggerated gestures when speaking, and like Vladimir Putin, has a penchant for having his picture taken without a shirt on.

Saint Sisoes and Alexander the Great's Bones by Chris Hall

After the fall of Constantinople in 1452 to the Ottoman Turks, there appeared to the newly subjugated Greeks an image of the 4th century ascetic, Saint Sisoes, lamenting over over the bones of the pagan emperor, Alexander the Great.  This strange icon is called the Astonishment of Saint Sisoes, and in it Saint Sisoes not only contemplates the death of a man, but also an entire earthly empire.  The icon first started to appear in Greek monasteries, but quickly spread to other monasteries throughout the former Byzantine Empire.  The inscription accompanying these icons reads:

Sisoes, the great ascetic, before the tomb of Alexander, King of the Greeks, who was once covered in glory.  Astonished, he mourns for the vicissitudes of time and the transience of glory, and tearfully declaims thus:

“The mere sight of you, tomb, dismays me and causes my heart to shed tears, as I contemplate the debt we, all men, owe.  How can I possibly stand it?  Oh, death!  Who can evade you?”

The icon, then, is a Greek memento mori (Latin: “Remember your mortality”), made more powerful by showing one of the greatest rulers in history – a  man who conquered half of the known world – as a pile of bones.  This recalls the famous quote, from an unknown source, on Alexander the Great which says, “A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.”

The pre-Christian Roman Emperors all believed their lineage could be traced to Alexander the Great, and this belief endured with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, all the way through to the final emperor, Constantine the XI.  Alexander the Great was looked upon as the prime exemplar of earthly governance (a tradition which continued through the Middle Ages, with the Alexander Romances).  The icons of Saint Sisoes Astonished Before the Bones of Alexander the Great, then, was not just a reminder of death as the great equalizer, or the great brought low, but of the passing of an entire Empire, stretching back almost 2,000 years.

The location of Alexander the Great's body is mystery.  After his death in 323 BCE, the emperor was ceremoniously buried in the city that bore his name, Alexandria in Egypt.  The tomb was a place of pilgrimage for the pagan Emperors, with Alexander being worshiped as a kind of demi-god.  This all stopped when Christianity was made the official state religion of the Empire during the rule of Theodosius.  Without imperial patronage, pagan shrines and temple slowly fell into disuse.  In some areas, however, such as in Egypt, old pagan shrines and temples were destroyed quickly, and with extreme prejudice.  While Alexander the Great was held in great esteem by the Christians for his earthly accomplishments, they drew the line at worship.  It was under these circumstances that Alexander the Great's tomb disappeared, sometime in the late 4th century.  

Sisoes, as an Egyptian living during this time, might very well have witnessed the destruction of Alexander's tomb.  Saint Sisoes the Great, as he would be called after his death, was a solitary, ascetic monk, living in the Egyptian desert, in a cave sanctified by his predecessor, Saint Anthony the Great.  He lived there for sixty years, seeking the spiritual sublime, and was said to have been granted the gift of wonder-working, so that by his prayers he was once even able to restore a dead child back to life.

St. Nicholas: Bad Ass Super Saint by Chris Hall

If God dies, at least we’ll still have St. Nicholas.  Russian proverb.

Nicholas was an early Christian and Bishop of Myra, Greece (now Demre, in modern day Turkey).  Because of his charity and also because of the many miracles that were attributed to him during his life, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.  St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, children, merchants, archers, repentant thieves and murderers, brewers, pawnbrokers, students, merchants, judges, the poor, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and many more. . . A full list of the people who St Nicholas protects can be found here:  http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/people/

Nicholas was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed ritual fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Nicholas is reported to have been a lean man, and not the jolly old elf of Santa Claus legend.  Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered for his faith, and at one point was exiled and imprisoned.  Some icons show him as having dark skin, so yes; there is a chance that Santa Claus is a black man.  

St Nicholas Reputation for Gift Giving

Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift giving and would often put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  This habit, along with his protection of children, led to his being the inspiration for Santa Claus (Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklass,” a corruption of “Saint Nikolaos.”  In one of his most famous gift giving exploits, Nicholas discovered a poor man with three young daughters.  The poor man could not afford a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would remain unmarried, and might possibly have to resort to prostitution.  Nicholas decided to help them anonymously, either out of modesty or possibly to save them the humiliation of having to accept charity.  As the eve of the first two girls coming of age, Nicholas would toss a bag of gold coins through the open window.  On the eve of his third daughter’s birthday, the poor man decided to lay in wait to discover his secret benefactor.  Nicholas learned of the plan, and instead tossed the third bag into the chimney.  The youngest daughter had hung up her stockings to dry near the hearth, and the bag of gold somehow landed in one of the stockings.

St Nicholas Stays an Execution

One day while out visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from his home city in Myra came to him and told him of how the ruler Eustathius had wrongfully condemned three Knights to death.  On reaching the outskirts of the city, Nicholas learned that the prisoner’s execution by beheading was to happen that morning.  Nicholas ran to the executioner’s field and stayed the executioner’s sword, which he then threw to the ground.  Nicholas ordered the release of the innocent prisoners and then went to confront Eustathius.  Eustathius confessed his crime and Nicholas absolved him after a period of penance.

St Nicholas Resurrects Three Murdered Children

Nicholas is attributed as having miraculous powers, as well.  In one legend, during a terrible famine, an evil butcher lured three children (or in some stories, three traveling students) to his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure.  He planned to sell the meat as ham.  Nicholas, who was visiting the region to care for the hungry, dreamed of the crime, and went to the house of the evil butcher.  Nicholas them resurrected the three dead boys from the barrel.  

St Nicholas and the Miracle of the Wheat

According to another legend, during the same famine (between 311 and 312), a ship anchored off Myra which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople.  Nicholas implored the sailors to share some of the wheat with the starving people of Myra.  The sailors were reluctant to share because they knew that the cargo had been weighed and any deviation would be reported.  Nicholas promised the sailors that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, so sailors agreed and unloaded a share of the wheat.  When the sailors arrived in Constantinople, they found that the wheat weighed the same, as if nothing was taken.  The people of Myra, however had enough wheat for two full years.

St. Nicholas Conquers the Sea

Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas found himself aboard a sinking ship in a storm.  Nicholas prayed, the seas calmed, and the ship was rescued.  This was only the first of many episodes which Nicholas figures in the rescuing of ships and sailors.  Nicholas would become the patron saint of sailors, who in return would spread Nicholas’ popularity around the world.  In another legend, a ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was caught in a storm.  The sailors were unable to move the ship to safer waters.  The sailors, hearing of Nicholas’ earlier interventions, prayed for Nicholas to help.  Nicholas actually appeared over the ship and then gave the sailors a helping hand, retying and strengthening the ropes holding the masts, and guiding the ship to safety.  As soon as the ship and sailors were rescued, the Nicholas vanished into thin air.  Because of the many stories of Nicholas coming to the aid of ships and sailors, Nicholas became known as “The Lord of the Sea,” a Christianized version of Poseidon.  

Posthumous Activities

After Nicholas’s death, it did not take long for him to be sainted.  Meanwhile, the miracles continued.  One evening the townspeople of Myra were celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day, on December 6th, when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into town and ransacked the place.  The pirates stole everything of value, and even took a young boy, Basilios, away to sell as a slave.  The young boy became the slave of the Emir, and would often serve the Emir wine in a beautiful golden cup.  Devastated by the lost of their only child, Basilios’ parents grieved for a whole year, until the next St. Nicholas feast.  Basilios’ parents then prayed to St. Nicholas for Basilios’ safety.  St Nicholas then appeared to Basilios and whisked the terrified boy away, and returned him to his parents.  The whole thing happened so quickly, Basilios was still holding the Emir’s golden cup.

St. Nicholas’s Magic Bones

St. Nicholas tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.  Because of the many wars in the region, many Christians became concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.  For both the religious and commercial advantages that come with having a major pilgrimage site, the cities of Bari and Venice, Italy, began to compete with each other for hosting the saint’s bones.  In 1087, 62 pirates from Bari resolved to settle the matter, when one of them reportedly had a vision of St. Nicholas commanding him to recover his bones in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.  The pirates, or sailors (depending on who is telling the tale) in a rush because of the resistance from Greek Orthodox monks, collected only half of the bones, and re-interned them in Bari, in Southern Italy.  Venetian sailors got what was left of St Nicholas during the First Crusade and placed the remains in a newly built church to St. Nicholas on the Lido.

While in Myra, the relics of St. Nicholas began to exude a clear watery liquid, smelling of rose water or myrrh.  The locals called it manna.  The mysterious manna was said to possess miraculous healing powers.  St Nicholas’ bones in Bari continue to ooze the magic potion, which is collected once a year by the clergy of the basilica on May 9th, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ re-internment.  Today you can purchase vials of St. Nicholas manna, economically diluted in Holy Water, in the basilica’s gift shop.

This is not Saint Nicholas' bones, but Alexander the Great's bones, as discovered by St. Sisoes.  Still, a nice illustration.

St. Nicholas Today

St. Nicholas continues to have an exciting afterlife in his incarnation as Father Christmas or Santa Claus.  There is the whole living at the North Pole thing, the elves that make toys, and of course the flying reindeer.  In the Netherlands Santa Claus is accompanied by a mischievous Moor (or more commonly a white Dutchman in blackface) named Black Pieter.  In parts of Germany and Austria, Santa Claus gets help from a demon named Krampus, who punishes all the wicked children.  While in the United States, Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola gets help from a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose.

In 1993, historians believe they had found the original tomb of St. Nicholas on the Turkish island of Gemile.  On December 28, 2009, the Turkish government announced that they would be making a formal request to return St. Nicholas’ skeletal remains back to Turkey, saying his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.  There is no word as to how the people of Venice and Bari responded.  Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, and although officially a secular state, they have had difficulty accepting St. Nicholas.  In 2000 a Russian bronze sculpture of St. Nicholas in orthodox vestments was erected in Demre (formally St. Nicholas’ hometown of Myra).  Buses of Russian tourists arrived everyday to Demre, who would then knell and pray at the base of the statue.  In 2005, the city removed the statue and replaced it with a brightly painted plastic resin statue of the more secular Santa Claus.  This caused an international uproar, but the city held its ground until Christmas Day, 2008, when they replaced the statue a second time, this time with a fiberglass version of St Nicholas with Turkish facial features and clothing.  The controversy continues, however, as some have pointed out that St. Nicholas was Greek, and the Turks did not arrive in the region until the 11th century.  

Alexander the Great in Medieval Romance by Chris Hall

Alexander the Great conquers the Sea in an early submarine in this French manuscript dated c 1445.

Alexander the Great conquers the Sea in an early submarine in this French manuscript dated c 1445.

When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.  Uknown

The life of Alexander the Great is a fascinating story.  He was born in Macedonia in July of 356 BC, son of Olympias and King Philip II (or Zeus in the form of a snake, if you want to buy into myths).  He was tutored by none other than the great Aristotle.  At twenty, Alexander succeeded his father and he began a campaign of military conquest that would extend his empire south to Egypt and then northwest to India, taking all of the Persian empire in between.  Although he never lost a battle, his men grew tired of fighting and forced Alexander to return home.  Alexander died exhausted shortly thereafter in Babylon, at the age of 32.  On his deathbed Alexander’s generals asked to whom he would give his kingdom.  Alexander replied, “To the strongest.”

In Medieval times the adventures of Alexander the Great were collected in series of romances and recorded in illuminated books.  It seems the authors of these tales had a great imagination and tended to embellish the history a bit with some colorful mythology of their own.  

In these illustrations Alexander the Great meets a hairy Wildman carrying a club.  Their friendship must have gone afoul when the Wildman attacks a lady.  The ever chivalrous Alexander burns the Wildman in a fire.

According to these illustrations, Alexander wasn't content with conquering the land, he also made attempts at conquering the sky in a vehicle powered by griffins.  Alexander is also recorded as having created an early version of the submarine, which he uses to conquer the bottom of the sea.  For some strange reason this illustration shows Alexander accompanied by a cat and a chicken.

Alexander continues to meet strange people and animals on his path of conquest.  Here he is greeted by the Blemmyae, a people without heads on their shoulders, but who have one giant eye in the center of their chest.  He also is recorded as having to battle an army of giant rats and bats, who are inexplicably led by some kind of three horned dragon-deer hybrid creature.

The Art of Pompeii by Chris Hall

In 1999 I had the opportunity to tour Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 AD.  I had previously seen some of the art in books and also in the museum in Naples, but seeing the art in Pompeii, in situ, had a profound effect upon me.  It was clear to me that the people of Pompeii thought, felt, and expressed themselves in much the same way we 20th Century people do.  Like us they were obsessed with sex, death, spirituality, nature, and capturing portraits for posterity.  Seeing these artworks among the ruins produced in me some strange, meditative thoughts, on life, death, and art, both as record specific to time and as something universal and eternal.  

Below are some images from Pompeii that I deem to be beautiful, in some form or fashion.  

Click the images to enlarge

Sex

Death

Spirituality

Portraiture

Animals and Nature

History


Love